Five Essential Films About Childhood

Scott Wallace
14th Sep 2014

Richard Linklater's Boyhood has arrived amidst a deluge of ecstatic critical reviews. Filmed over the course of 12 years, in Boyhood we see the actors actually age on-screen as the film progresses, making it both a literal and figurative coming-of-age. Many childhood films like Boyhood are shown through the lens of a still developing mind as it learns to see and to comprehend, often shrouded with all the innocence and naivety of a child. In honour of Boyhood's momentous arrival, here, in chronological order, are five essential childhood movies that possess a weight and scope that makes Boyhood look like child's play.

Forbidden Games (1952)

It is June 1940 and the Second World War is raging. Paulette is 10 years old and the world is collapsing around her. Within this film's first ten minutes, Paulette loses everything. Taken in by the Dollés, a family of farmers, Paulette grows attached to Michel, and the young boy joins her in her attempts to come to terms with the death and destruction that is taking place around them. Forbidden Games is a view of death and war from a little closer to the ground than what we're used to seeing in the cinema. The children do not understand what is happening, but they accept their circumstances and try to make the best of it while all around them the adults lose heart and allow themselves to be caught up in petty squabbles. Brave Paulette attempts to find closure by conducting a burial ceremony for her little dog Jock, but in the end she's still lost and alone in the world.

Pather Panchali (1955)

The first part of his legendary "Apu Trilogy," Satyajit Ray's first feature is a pastoral masterpiece. Set in rural India, the film tells the story of the child Apu and his family. The film melds the harsh reality of the family's situation - impoverished and desperate - with Apu's child's-eye view of the world. In one scene, Apu and his sister Durga gleefully enjoy treats purloined from the kitchen while their parents wonder where their next meal is going to come from. Apu barely speaks, but watches the film's events unfold, slowly coming to understand what is happening around him. Assisted by Ravi Shankar's traditional Indian musical score, Pather Panchali is a poetic and achingly beautiful exploration of Apu's family and how they relate to the world in which they have found themselves, drawing strong and poetic parallels between their emotions and the restless, living world around them. At one point, Apu sees an enormous steam train barrelling through a field, and he realises in an instant that the world is bigger than he ever thought possible.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Ana and Isabel have just seen James Whale's horror classic Frankenstein, brought to their little Castilian town by a mobile cinema not long after the end of the Spanish civil war. Convinced by her older sister that the monster is a friendly, wandering spirit, Ana goes out searching for him. In her search, she finds something shocking and heartbreaking in an abandoned house on the plateau. The ambiguous, fractured nature of Ana and Isabel's family means that the two girls are often left alone with their own imaginations, flitting around in their gigantic manor house like the bees of the film's title. Invoking the unswerving curiosity and congeniality of childhood, The Spirit of the Beehive is a portrait of a young girl doing her best to do the right thing, even if it means helping a monster. The deep uncertainty of the film is fitting for a story about two young girls trying to navigate a world that, to them, seems directionless, unstable and unknowable.

Fanny & Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman's most directly autobiographical film is also his least dour, using a rich visual palette and indulgent magical realism to tell one of the Swedish director's boldest and most life-affirming stories. Cut down from a much longer film, the three-hour cut of the film features many truncated side stories, but at the centre of everything is Alexander and his sister Fanny and their journey to escape the clutches of their tyrannical step-father after their own father's death. A sense of the fantastic pervades Fanny & Alexander, from the bizarrely moving statues in the family drawing room, to the puppet-maker's shop where a psychic hermaphrodite is kept behind a locked door, but there is a tender, warm heart of familial love at the centre of the film. Bergman's last masterpiece perfectly captures the romanticism, glee, fear and sorrow of childhood without resorting to mawkish sentimentality.

À ma sœur! (2001)

Catherine Breillat's provocative story of sexual awakening deserves to mentioned because it is one of the few films that deals with the blossoming sexual desires of young women without resorting to cloaked vagaries and perfumed euphemism. That the film deals heavily with the impact of idealised body types on young women (the title in some other countries is Fat Girl) makes it doubly as important. In À ma sœur! ("for my sister!"), overweight teenager Anaïs experiences first love by proxy of her older sister Elena when the elder, much more attractive girl gets involved with a young Italian man on a family holiday. Of course, being a Catherine Breillat movie, the film is explicit, challenging and confronting, making no qualms about showing the full extent of Anaïs's unfulfilled desire and the festering envy she holds toward her sister as Elena gives away her precious virginity. After a shocking ending that must be seen to be believed, À ma sœur! recalls Truffaut's The 400 Blows (another classic of lost, yearning youth) with a simple, devastating freeze frame.